Discover what to do, see, and eat;
and more about getting the most out of your experience in the City of Kyoto!
Learn about Kyoto from the experts with a guided tour into some of the city’s secrets! This time, follow an expat living in Kyoto as he heads out on a tour through some of Kyoto’s eastern neighborhoods, tasty eateries, and local shrines! See details on how to participate below.
Kyoto is such an incredibly historical city, with temples, shrines, a castle, and plenty of festivals connected to each of them. With all these amazing places, it’s easy to forget the rich community of people that make the city their home. Although historical facilities and festivals are an inseparable part of what makes Kyoto Kyoto, the people, homes, shops, schools, and parks are equally, if not a more an important part of the city’s identity. Visiting any destination as a traveler, it’s extremely valuable to explore this facet of a city to get a well-rounded view of the area, and Kyoto is no exception.
In Higashiyama, the eastern part of Kyoto, just a short walk from Heian-jingu Shrine, you’ll find the Furukawa-cho Shopping Arcade. Where Nishiki Market is called the “Kitchen of Kyoto,” Furukawa-cho Shopping Arcade was once known as “the eastern Kitchen of Kyoto.” Many people would pass through this area and make whatever purchases they needed on their way in and out of Japan’s former capital.
Nowadays, the shopping arcade is home to a unique mix of classic stores remaining from generations past, as well as many newer establishments. One facility you’ll find right in the heart of the shopping arcade is Furukawa Shuzo, a community center run by a local group working to invigorate the shopping arcade and the surrounding community. The group hosts events like a lantern festival, English classes for local shop keepers, and even knife sharpening classes for the many people enamored with Japan’s amazing cutlery.
One of Furukawa Shuzo’s current endeavors is the Kyoto Community Exploration Tour. It’s a tour through the local area led by some of the City of Kyoto’s certified guides, the Kyoto Visitors Hosts. The tour is a great way to get a down-to-earth view of Kyoto, with a look at Kyoto’s community, rather than some of the more typical, touristy parts of the city.
I recently participated in this tour, and my guide actually lives within walking distance of the shopping arcade. She told us that she comes through all the time to pick up daily necessities for her family. She started off the tour by leading us south, down the length of the arcade, passing traditional Japanese restaurants, a posh cotton candy shop, newly-built apartment buildings, and even a home supply shop. At the end of the arcade we found ourselves at the Shirakawa River–more of a stream given its size, but beautiful nonetheless. The river is a sight to be seen any time during the year, with beautiful green willow trees that grow on its banks.
We walked north along the river, and made our way past houses, schools, and store fronts, including one store selling traditional Japanese sweets. Although the store did not stand out from other buildings along the street, the amazing flavors most definitely did. Azuki bean paste, a major ingredient in each of the confectionaries, made for a welcome change from the Western-style sweets I am so used to. I’ll definitely be back in the near future to satisfy my sweet tooth.
After our snack, we turned off into one of the side streets and our guide began explaining to us the fine details of Japanese and Kyoto culture that we wouldn’t have noticed just walking along the street. From the Buddhist altars in each neighborhood, to the demon quelling ‘Shoki’ statues on the roofs of many houses, I learned a great deal just walking the Kyoto streets with a guide by my side.
We later made our way to Awata Shrine, a small local shrine where travelers would historically visit before departing on their journeys. Though not nearly of the same scale as some of the more well-known temples and shrines in the city, the shrine had its own unique feel and had an amazing view of the city from up on a mountainside. Our guide informed us that the shrine is also a major community center, with festivals several times a year, and even a beer garden during the summer–the perfect way to cool off on a hot summer night. I’ll be sure to go back when that time rolls around.
Finally, we made our way back to the shopping arcade, where our tour began. We wound down with a look at the local shops, like a deli where we snacked on some delicious croquettes. It was a mom and pop-run shop, and it was obvious that it had been there a long time – and the taste made it clear why. We also passed by a fish shop which David Bowie had visited many years ago. The owner there couldn’t help but show off the picture of him attending to the famous singer.
Overall, the tour taught me a lot about everyday Kyoto. There is so much to learn about Kyoto in terms of religion and architecture, but so much remains hidden when focusing solely on those aspects. It was so refreshing to get to know the city by walking around a regular neighborhood where Japanese spend their everyday lives. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, do join the Kyoto Neighborhood Exploration Tour!